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The Federal Coach

Sheila Bair on leading the FDIC

Wayne Clough
Sheila C. Bair is the Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). Created by Congress in 1933 to restore public confidence in the nation's banking system, the FDIC insures deposits at the nation's 7,830 banks and savings associations. Bair has an extensive background in banking and finance, and her career has taken her from Capitol Hill to academia and government. What have you learned about leadership from your mentor, Senator Bob Dole?

I think I got my directness from him--a good Midwestern trait. We can be brutally direct sometimes. He was very direct. Sometimes he would be jarring. At the end of the day, I appreciated it. When he voiced his expectations, you always knew what he wanted. I think directness can be unsettling to some people, but it helps because people appreciate clarity and what's expected of them.

The FDIC has been at the forefront of the financial crisis. How have you kept your employees motivated in the agency's mission and work?

I think we always keep a focus on mission. Protecting insured deposits is a very important, tangible mission. It's one that the public can understand and appreciate. The FDIC has a long history of stability and safety--no one has ever lost a penny of insured deposits. As the crisis unfolded and other sectors were destabilizing, insured deposits remained stable and there were no disruptions. If you look at other government agencies that have high morale, they have a clearly defined mission. The leadership at those agencies has to ensure that people stay focused on the mission and help them understand how their individual jobs relate to the mission.

How do you engage your front-line employees?

In terms of circulating ideas, I do quarterly call-ins so anyone can call or send me questions anonymously. We also have a Web site specifically devoted to employees who want to write in with comments and express views, an employee ombudsman for matters that are more personal, [and] a suggestions program to actively solicit employee support.

We also undertook a culture change initiative [where we] asked the executive management to start engaging more on a top-down basis to solicit feedback. It was all about employee empowerment, making sure that employees feel empowered to voice their views. With the ability to voice these views comes the responsibility to do so and understand that managers are obliged to hear your views. Employees have had a lot of influences on the changes we've made here. I think if they feel empowered to do their job, if they feel like their job is relevant, they'll do it well.

Day in and day out, how do you prioritize your time?

I think there are a couple of core jobs being the chairman of the FDIC. One is being a leader for the organization [and] making sure we deliver on our mission. Risk management is also important and I spend a lot of time in briefings getting reports on how we're doing in various areas. And of course, working with the FDIC board is also something I spend a lot of time on. All of our major decisions go before the board for approval. And at the end of the day, I like having a board. It's a good a collaborative process.

I spend time externally. One of the first people I met with when I got this job was Bill Seidman, our famous former FDIC chairman. His advice was that the FDIC is all about public confidence, and to that end, you have to interact with the media. Be open, be accessible. I took his advice to heart. I make myself available for media interviews, [because] I think those help public confidence and ensure more transparency.

What do you consider to be a critical event to your becoming the leader you are today?

One of the things that has helped me is that I've worked at all levels. I worked as a bank teller between college and law school. When I started with the government, I was a GS-11 attorney. It was a progression--I didn't start at the top. I think having those experiences and seeing it from the perspective of the managed as well as the manager has helped. So I do understand how people feel lost in the shuffle or not appreciated as much as they should be, [and] I try to bring those things to my management style.

By Tom Fox

 |  October 8, 2010; 12:47 PM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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